Recently there has been some discussion on whether children should be in church or in Sunday School during the Divine Liturgy. Should children be in church? The answer lies in how we view the church and what role we want the church to have in the lives of our children today and in the future.
Should children be in church? The answer is yes. You can't teach in a vacuum. You can't teach about the life of the church if children are excluded from that life. If children are a part of the church family they should be expected to be in church and be a part of the worship. The "holy noise," the "liturgical movement" and all.
Are they a distraction to others? Sometimes. But they are Christian Armenians learning and growing in their faith. Their best chance of becoming regular churchgoers is if they attend church on a regular basis from the beginning. Is it easy to bring children to church? No. Does it take preparation and planning? Yes, lots of it. Is it worth it? Definitely.
The theory is that any child will learn certain behaviors in certain situations if they are exposed to it on a regular basis. Many parents and teachers who bring children to Badarak often wonder if it's worth it, especially after numerous treks to the back of the church when the children get noisy or rambunctious or have to make trips to the bathroom (of course, this usually occurs at the most inappropriate times during the Liturgy). At times like that, we're tempted to agree with those who say children should not be in church. That's when we have to remember Jesus’ tenderness and open-armed welcome to children or the sight of a little girl crossing herself during "Soorp Asdvadz" or the wide eyes of a little boy as he is helped to light a candle.
Children should be involved with Christ and the church now so they will be involved in the future. If we keep them on the fringes now, they will be involved only on the fringes of the church later.
By regular attendance at Badarak, children learn and notice more than we could ever imagine and the knowledge and habits they gain will likely become a reality of their existence in the future. One parent, who started taking her young children to Liturgy during the summer when there was no Sunday school, noticed that their children learned a lot during their time in church, that they became comfortable with the length of the service and made observations and asked questions about what they saw and heard. However, this does not happen without a great deal of effort and patience on the part of parents and teachers. For in order for children to learn the liturgy it is important for parents to have a basic understanding of the liturgy. Parents must be willing to learn the liturgy so they might teach their children.
The following are some suggestions to help parents and/or teachers when taking children to church:
1. Sit as close to the front as possible. Children need to see what is happening. This also helps with their attention and eventual understanding of the Badarak. You may feel uncomfortable doing this, thinking the children will be a distraction to adults. Please don't. It is the children's job to learn how to be part of the Divine Liturgy at their level, and it is the adult's job to be tolerant of this learning process and not expect children to be adults. Don't expect young children to sit still for a whole service or stay quiet. This is unrealistic and counter-productive. Never say to young children, "Don't talk," rather say, "Whisper." Movement can be restricted but not prohibited.
2. Bring materials for the children. This can be a children's pictorial guide to the Liturgy (available from St. Vartan Book & Gift Shop), Bible story books, a cross or other Christian symbol which they can hold and play with in church. Let the children know what is acceptable and what is not. Don't expect a two-year-old to act like a five-year-old, and don't expect a five-year-old to act like an eight-year-old. Set up routines for the children to follow while at Liturgy.
3. Prepare the children for the Liturgy. Read the Gospel or epistle for the day before you go into church. Explain to the children that they will hear this in church and have them listen for key words (obviously, this applies only if the readings are done in English). During church, whisper to them to remind them to listen for the reading. Teach children when to make the sign of the cross or to say "Der voghormia." Children as young as four or five can recite the Hayr Mer. Teach it to the children and encourage them to recite it during church. Teaching children certain routines, such as lighting a candle, watching for the Lesser or Great Entrances, listening to the Gospel, exchanging the Kiss of Peace, receiving communion, reciting the Lord's Prayer, etc., not only breaks down the service so it is manageable for young children but also teaches them a great deal about the Divine Liturgy itself.
4. Ignore comments that belittle your effort to make children part of church life. People who make these comments about the behavior of children have little understanding of what the church is about or Christ's acceptance and welcome of little children. You will find that your tolerance level is lower, and the children's behavior worse, when you are more concerned with what people think rather than with encouraging the children during the Divine Liturgy. Don't let bad days discourage you. Evaluate what has happened, change expectations if necessary and try again. You are not alone so seek advice from other teachers, parents or your pastor.
5. Make the church an important part of your life. Your own spiritual life is an important role model to children. If the children see that God and the church are important parts of your life, this will make a great impact as they grow older and one day accept this faith as their own. Pray at home and in class, read the Bible and involve the children in good works. Your own spiritual life will also give you that extra strength to tolerate those less-than-perfect, child-like behaviors in church and to bring the children on a regular basis to Badarak. When Sunday School is put first (rather than the Liturgy), it sends a mixed message about the importance of the church in your own life, and unfortunately, it is a much stronger message than whatever children could learn in Sunday school.
6. Use the pew books
The beautiful new pew books are excellent teaching tools for children and parents alike. In addition to a translation of the entire Badarak, the books contain explanations of what is happening during the Badarak and numerous pictures of scenes from the Badarak at various points during the liturgy. Why not point out the upcoming picture to your child and ask him or her to tell you when the priest and/or deacon are doing what is drawn in the picture.
In conclusion, you need to examine how you view the church and what you want for your students in order to decide how you feel about children at church services. If you want your children to experience the fullness of Christ and his church and possess a full liturgical life that will one day enhance their own spiritual life, then you must answer "Yes” to having your children participate in the Divine Liturgy.
The preceding article is republished from the DRE (Department of Religious Education) Bulletin - December 1995
Revised 2001 Fr. Tavit Boyajian